“You’ve created space in your life,” I tell her from across the table. A fire roars over her shoulder. It makes this back room, a mini art gallery in our town café, unusually warm. Outside, feet of snow are piled onto the sidewalks, carved into narrow lanes by shovels, footprints and dog paws.

“Now you have more room to breathe, to live, to do whatever you want,” I continue, “So, what do you want?”

She pauses. Her eyes search for an answer. Framed paintings and hung photos listen, waiting.

“What if I don’t know what I want?”

Having this conversation with a friend over coffee is as much for me as it is for her.

I’m not dishing advice, I’m reminding myself of it. This is what can happen when you use your words as honest little chisels in open, meaningful, explorative dialogue: you excavate precious jewels within you that have been buried by routines, doldrums, and familiar mental patterns.

As I pose these questions to her, I hear me ask myself, “What do I want? How am I filling the space in my life?”

Our lives are constant processes of refinement. That’s the journey we’re on. The jewels are always there, but we have to keep clearings open. Dirt, dust, landslides happen. Neglecting the gems means that we’ll lose them. That’s our yoga–the daily practice of striving to become whole.

And when you feel driven at your core to live in alignment with your truth, whenever you feel like you’re not, you know it. It becomes a problem. We’re bound to find ourselves questioning, even doubting, the path that we’re on when things feel like they aren’t jiving right.

Doubts are symptomatic of an unshakable, foundational value: a guiding belief etched into your spirit by the stars, the cosmos, the Universe, God.

That guiding belief is a whisper in your ear, “Live now. Live well. Love much. Care deeply.”

Doubt is just the flip side of the hyper-awareness you use to self-assess how you’re living your life. It’s part of the price you pay when you’re awake–after you shake the years’ and years’ worth of sleepies from your eyes and commit to living well, once and for all.

Back in the warm coffee shop, it’s my turn to search for a reply.

“It’s okay to not know what you want,” I tell her. “It’s tough to know what we want. Because we have to get out of that need-based, survival thinking.”

So much in our lives feels like it hinges upon survival that just about everything becomes a need. We need to make money to pay rent and bills. We need this, we need that, we say it all the time. It’s true, we have lots of things we need to do–responsibilities and obligations that trump what we “want” to do at any given moment.

But when we muddle what we desire with what we need to survive, we start to lose the ability to do things for the love and joy of them.

We lose our desire.

We forget to do things just because they feel good.

We lose track of what we want. We don’t even remember what we have wanted all along.

So we say that we need to get out of the house to get some fresh air, when we actually just want it, because it feels good. We say we need to go to yoga to get a workout in, when we actually want to be in our bodies, to sweat, to move, to flow, to feel good and alive.

One of the reasons why “we don’t know what we want” is because we use ‘need’ and ‘want’ interchangeably.

Truth is, they’re very different. “Habits confuse them,” Jason Fried recently tweeted, implying that it’s our mental association to the words that muddy the waters.

“Need” and “want” represent varying degrees of a driving force that leads us to doing something.

A need, of course, is a necessity. An obligation. A responsibility. A want, conversely, is a matter of desire.

The trouble starts to occur when we default all of our desires into necessities–confusing the two, our wants become less than secondary to our needs. Instead, we don’t even realize what we want.

At first, making something we “want” into a “need” would initially not seem like a problem.

Because a “need” is more forceful. A need is a necessity, a priority, an obligation.

So if we “need” to go for a run, “need” to go to yoga, “need” to write 3,000 words today, we’re subconsciously reaffirming the importance of accomplishing this task. Which seems like a positive, because it puts the pressure on us to actually get it done. 

But putting live-or-die pressure on ourselves is not exactly the best means of achievement.

Because our souls don’t soar under the pressure of life-and-death.

From Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to the traditional Hindu Chakra System, over thousands of years and spanning Eastern and Western philosophies, we’ve been able to demystify complex human nature to show that human beings flourish, we thrive, when we finish surviving and give ourselves the opportunities for higher levels of being.

The “need” is to take care of our base-level matters. The “need” is survival. Shelter. Food. Water. Rent money. Even sex.

These are what we need. Survival hinges upon them.

And so when we say that we “need” coffee, we’re placing false necessity on a desire.

Which, in the case of a cup of morning caffeine, is harmless.

Except when we unconsciously continue the pattern of confusing matters-of-survival and vital responsibilities with our wants–from passing whims like morning coffee to the most sacred desires that call upon our souls to activate with Godlike power.

In doing so, we confuse these two driving forces that influence how we choose to live the course of our everyday lives: need, and want.

We’re not always hanging on the edge of survival or death. Not every obligation is do-or-die. But in the day-to-day, it’s easy to get stuck thinking like it is.

Using “need” to turn our sacred desires into fundamentals necessities (like water, food and shelter) is how we muddle our thinking that a morning jog, a To-Do list, or the unread emails in our inboxes are matters of life and death.

Worse, need keeps us in a fear-state.

Acting from need means operating our lives from a state of feeling fearful. Fearful of repercussions, consequences, outcomes–even when they’re justified, it’s still fear-induced behavior we’re feeling.

Sticking everything to “need, need, need,” causes ourselves fierce anxiety, tension, worry and panic.

We cannot even bear to think about what we want, because survival comes first.

Even if we aren’t hinging our decisions on life and death, choosing the word “need” and acting like it causes us to activate a fight for survival. Our fight or flight mechanisms engage.

And even a trivial or meaningless task, masquerading as a matter of life or death, becomes a cause of profound fear because the repercussions are suddenly dire.

How long do you think you can manage living like that before you realize that you’re stuck?

Until you realize, “I have no idea who I am beyond my endless struggle to survive.”

Who needs to live like that?

Who wants to live like that?

When we don’t give enough of our energy towards what we want, we tend to get stuck in survive-or-die cycles of need-based thinking and actions. We suffocate in survival mode, and don’t know how to fill the space we create in our lives with good things that we want–because we don’t know what we want, or why we want it, or if we’re even allowed to want it.

It’s no wonder that so many of us struggle to understand what we want.

We barely use the language to acknowledge what we want, let alone to understand why we want it.

We neglect the word “want” because we’re guilty of what we want. Wanting sounds like a pleasantry, a convenience, a nicety. “I don’t earn my stripes in the eyes of others by wanting things,” we might hear ourselves say, “I need to take care of business. I gotta hustle. Dig deep. Burn through.”

We continue the pattern of using self-flattering complaints (as with the word “busy”) by telling people that we need to workout, we need to meet more people, we need to start cooking more at home.

We’re so socially conditioned to saying “What we’re up to today” and “What’s on our schedule this week” by floating from one dire need to the next that we forget that we’re not actually in the trenches of a war–except the war within for peace, wholeness, and contentment.

It’s wanting that leads us to that peace.

Desire leads us to the heart; toward love.

Desire will start to take you home.

This is how the late Eknath Easwaran, one of the 20th century’s most storied scholars of Sanskrit and ancient texts of Indian philosophy, opens his translation of The Upanishads:

“You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.”

Brihadaranyanka IV.4.5

Think about that.

You are what your desire is.

Why? Because what you want leads your will. Desire is where you tap your resolution and discipline.

That, in turn, is what leads your choices. Your decisions. How you live, every day.

And therein lies your destiny.

When we start to give ourselves to our wantings and desires, we also discover a practice exercise in self-trust.

We do this by observing how we feel. Not judging it, but accepting feelings as a means of moving and maneuvering in life that builds confidence, self-knowledge and self-love.

Tuning into the rhythms of desire, we start to “feel” our way through to an understanding about what our souls are craving: the yearnings etched deep within our Beings that reveal our paths.

Do what you want to do.

Lay claim to what you desire.

You don’t have to need. What you want is enough.

After all, “You are what your deep, driving desire is.”

Because your desire leads your will.

And your will leads your deeds.

Your deeds are your destiny.

That’s why you are indistinguishable from what you want.

Why, everywhere we look, we hear “Pursue passion!” “Do what you love!” “Go for it!” “Dream big!”

It’s not the details that matter. It’s the desire that does.

You are your deep, driving desire.